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An American colleague who I really admire emailed me in July throwing up her hands in despair, bemoaning the inability of an individual in America to have positive influence…to be a change agent. According to my American friend, that is a critical difference between Americans and Canadians. 

From her vantage point, my American friend sees Canada as a kind of small town where people, like me, can have optimism in some ways because we have a history of being effective. It’s enabled Canadians to have (what looks like naïve beliefs to Americans)…a belief that we can really change things, not just in Canada, but in the world. My American friend laments the loss of that citizenship in the U.S. When victim language crept into my friend’s view of the world, I really became alarmed.

All summer, I’ve been pondering this perplexing image; I can’t absorb the possibility of American victimhood. I do a lot of work in the developing world, managing a volunteer organization (http://www.canadabridges.com/) that trains and mentors women, men and youth in far-flung and excruciatingly poor places like Yemen and Nepal. Though my knees buckle at times, I do everything I can to not feed victim mentality in these places where we  volunteer (and to resist the temptation to take on the hero’s cloak!)

Two books I read this summer really helped me get clearer on the potential influence of individuals…anywhere. I’d recommend them both: The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Portfolio, 2006) by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, and The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World (Harvard Business Press, 2008) by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan.

The Starfish and the Spider argues that organizations fall into two categories: traditional “spiders” which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish” that rely on the power of peer relationships. The book’s authors reinforce for me the effectiveness of individual influence within decentralized structures – if the “head” of a spider organization is lopped off, the entire entity withers and dies; conversely, if a starfish organization loses an arm, the starfish survives, even regenerates the missing arm. A starfish is resilient.

In The Power of Unreasonable People, Elkington and Hartigan explain how “unreasonable” entrepreneurs are creating new business models to catalyze social change. These “crazy” change agents are innovating responses to epochal challenges-conflict, terrorism, poverty, climate change, global pandemics. What’s behind these successful social entrepreneurs? An unwavering belief in everyone’s innate capacity, often regardless of education, to contribute meaningfully to economic and social development. Certainly, these individuals are idealistic; they see possibility where others see only insurmountable barriers. But, they aren’t naïve: the thought of impending doom may actually energize them.  

Individuals taking negative energy…and with compassion and intelligence…transforming the negative energy into positive, creative will.

Perhaps this is an unreasonable vision. Crazy even.  But, how absolutely inspiring.  

And, I’m not alone. Kirby Leong, fellow Canadian and social entrepreneur in the SAP family, shares this same journey from Kenya. If you need inspiration, check out Kirby’s stories from Africa…Back in Africa, Part 12 – “Everyone Has a Story” Aug. 17, 2008.

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  1. Bernhard Escherich
    Many thanks for sharing your thought and bringing these two inspring books to our attention.
    I have a very simple tool to bring my own thoughts back to optism. Before joining SAP I was a team commander on several disaster relief operation for the German federal disaster management organization. If I feel depressed I very often think of all the optism and the smiles that a small children thirsty children had in Somalia in a refugee camp in 1992 when she got the first fresh water out of a water hole which we have built. She taught me a lesson: Small actions of yourself could change the world for someone else and this is  what matters really.
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